Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Abu Dhabi, UAE

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

It was November, and I hadn't flown in 10 whole days! Having nothing better to do, I thought I'd hop on over to the Middle East where the temperature was a bit warmer. Now this wasn't an impulsive decision; in fact, it had been planned for more than 12 months. As chair of an international committee, each November, I'm required to attend the annual plenary of the parent committee, and this year our host was Abu Dhabi, one of the two best-known of the seven United Arab Emirates (simply UAE or, to the locals, دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة), the other being neighboring Dubai. After 35 years and 1.8 million air miles of international travel, it would be a new country for me as well as a new airline. The weather forecast for my visit was at least high 70's F during the day and mid-50's during the night, something I was sure I could live with now that back home was headed towards some serious cold.

Before I get into the details of my trip, here's some basic information about the UAE. Abu Dhabi is the capital. The time is GMT+4 (nine hours ahead of my home), and the currency is the UAE dirham (AED), one of which is made up of 100 fils. (Interestingly, before independence, they used the Indian rupee.) Although it's a former British territory, they drive on the right (while tailgating at high-speed, I found). The vast majority of the population is made up of guest workers, mostly from a variety of Asian countries.

[Diary] Ordinarily when I have an "International Travel Day", most of the day is given over to that; however, this flight didn't depart until 10 pm, so I had the whole day to fill. Knowing the trip would be grueling, I took it easy working on household chores and business administration before settling down to work on an essay for a future blog. It's always a challenge to finish off all the perishable food before leaving for an extended stay. As I've written before, on the last day before departure, not everything in the fridge looks good in an omelet!

I left home around 2 pm in cool sunshine, and drove to my old area, Reston, where I had a number of meetings around various volunteer and business activities. One task was to make sure the new bank cash-machine card I'd received in the mail that day worked properly, as I'd need it the next day. At 7:30 pm, my trusty Nepalese taxi driver arrived to take me to Washington Dulles Airport (IAD). It was cool, but pleasant out, and we chatted along the way.

Most domestic and international flights had departed, so the airport was quiet. Although there was a line at the Etihad Airlines desk, that moved steadily and soon I was checked in by a very friendly young woman. Next to me, the crew was also checking in. The cockpit crew of four were all white males, while the cabin crew were all females, but from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. (The one who eventually sat in the jump seat opposite me in flight was from Bombay, India.) The women were very neatly dressed in uniforms, and most wore a white scarf around their necks, one end of which was tucked up under their mini-pillbox hats. It was my first time flying that airline, which is based in Abu Dhabi. [Dubai is home to Emirates Airlines, and the two compete quite actively.] The line at security was non-existent.

My flight was departing from Terminal A, a place I'd rarely visited except to take short-haul commuter flights. As that terminal was reachable by an underground walkway, and I had plenty of time, I decided to walk rather than take the train. Besides, I'd be sitting on a plane for 13 hours, so some exercise in advance would be a good idea. It turns out that the terminal also handles some long-haul carriers, and when I arrived and looked at the flights departing during the next two hours, I saw the following destinations listed: Abu Dhabi; Doha, Qatar; Dubai; Istanbul, Turkey; Kuwait; London, England; Munich, Germany; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Toronto, Canada.

Flight EY130 boarded on time and I took up residence in Seat 24A. The bad news was I was flying Economy Class. (Ordinarily, Business Class costs about four times that, but for this trip, the cost was about seven times, which is why I declined to upgrade.) The good news was I'd paid $120 extra each way for an exit seat with loads of legroom and the ability to get in/out of my seat without disturbing my neighbor. I'd also brought my own pillow.

The Airbus A340-500 took off to the north and we headed up to the Atlantic provinces of Canada. We were at least 30 minutes late departing. As you might expect, all announcements were in Arabic and English, as was the text in the in-flight magazine and the audio/video system. Arabic is written right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and the characters on each line seem to run together. (If I understand correctly, there are characters for consonants only, with vowels expressed via some special marks. Also, they write numbers left-to-right, in the middle of right-to-left text!) In the hour leading up to takeoff, I'd been yawning with increased frequency, a good sign, so as soon as possible, I lay back my seat, wrapped two blankets around my feet and long legs, and tried to sleep. Having had a substantial snack at 5:30 pm, I had no problem missing the inflight dinner service.

As I'm sure everyone who's flown Economy Class knows, the seats simply do not tilt back far enough for a comfortable sleep, and this trip was no exception. I slept fitfully for the next six hours. On waking, I had a sandwich and drink, and read some magazines. So, how does one get from Washington DC to Abu Dhabi? I fired up my personal video system and played around with the options to look at the route map. Here's the path of our flight: From Newfoundland, Canada, we crossed the Atlantic to Spain. Then we followed the Mediterranean Sea to a point just south of the island of Sicily. South of the Greek island of Crete, we veered right into Egyptian airspace, passing south of Cairo, and out over the Red Sea south of the Sinai Peninsula. From there, it was a straight run due east across Saudi Arabia to the Emirates.

Afterwards, I took several more not-so-restful naps. I surfed the movie and audio selection, none of which inspired me, not even the readings from the Koran in Arabic! I couldn't even get interested in a novel I'd brought. Finally, I started work on this diary.

Now on long flights, it is common to be served several meals. What was unusual on this flight is that both meals were called "dinner". The first was served at 11:15 pm, DC time, less than an hour after departure. The second came at 6 pm, Emirates time, an hour before landing. Anyway, I had a nice meal of chicken with vegetables and mashed potato, served with real cutlery and a cup of mango juice. On long-haul flights, the crew encourages travelers to keep the window shades closed, so people can sleep, and although I like to look out the window, there isn't much to see from 40,000 feet up when you are over water or desert. I finally looked out as the sun set behind us over the Arabian Desert, when we were not too far south of the Iraqi border. There was a haze below and all I could see was desert with occasional rocky outcrops. In one area, the desert contained many circles and semicircles of irrigation booms.

After a 13-hour flight with no serious turbulence, we had a smooth touch down at 8:30 pm with the local temperature at 75 degrees F. Apparently, someone had lost the front-door key, and we all stood waiting for at least 10 minutes before we could deplane. It was pleasant out, and the long walk to passport control got my blood circulating again. Along the way, I saw a few men in traditional white robes and headgear. All passport agents were dressed in that manner. There was no paperwork and no questions other than, "Is this your first visit to Abu Dhabi?" And then, "Welcome!" My luggage took a while to appear and as I waited, I chatted with a young Aussie woman who was on her way back home from a visit to Nairobi, Kenya. After some detective work, I found a cash machine and coaxed from it 800 dirhams, successfully using my new cash card. I have a checking and a savings account, but almost no cash machines I've used around the world give me a choice; they simply take the money from my checking account. However, this time, the machine took it from my savings account without asking. Bloody computers! Next up was a stop at the tourist desk where a friendly young man gave me a map, some brochures, and other useful information.

I went outside to the long line of black minivan taxis, and was soon on my way to the hotel. My driver was from Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as we old-timers know it). The ride took about 30 minutes, and I think we spent most of that one car length behind whatever vehicle was in front of us, while traveling at speed. Several times, I had to look away, think of pleasant things, and not dwell on whether or not I'd die on my first day in country.

Everywhere we went, signs were written in Arabic and English. The fare was about US$30, which included a small tip. At the entrance of my hotel, Al Maha Arjaan, two bellmen met me, one to escort me inside to the front desk, the other to take my luggage and computer bag. As I was the only customer at that time, both of the front-desk staff gave me their undivided attention. I broke my 500-dirham bill into something usable, and got some smaller bills to use as tips after asking the staff as to what the tipping practice was. When I enquired as to the size of my bed, they asked, "What size bed would you like?" Of course, it was obvious I was tall, so they upgraded me to a king-size bed, and as we were getting along so well, they threw in free wifi and breakfast.

By the time I got up to my room on the 15th floor, it was 10:30 pm. The bellman gave me a thorough orientation for which I tipped him the princely sum of 5 dirhams (about $1.50). One whole wall was glass, and outside I could see signs of civilization: A Southern Fried Chicken restaurant, a KFC, and a McDonalds! My room was quite large with a work desk, a lounge area, a wet area with sink and mini-kitchen, complete with refrigerator and tea/coffee-making facilities. The large bathroom had a walk-in shower stall that I figured could comfortably accommodate six people at a time. (Time would tell if that number was accurate.)

Back at the front desk, I got directions to a local supermarket and I headed out. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic was heavy, and everyone waited respectfully for the green light before crossing, primarily I think because of the crazy drivers. I found all my basics. By chance, I went down an aisle that had soap, and there right in front of me were packs of Pear's transparent soap, something I'd used for years, but have been unable to get back home for a long time. I rescued several of them. Back in my room, I settled down to several glasses of nice, cold, whole milk, some slices of cheese, and some potato chips. That took care of three of my four food groups!

I took my time unpacking and setting up my computer gear before connecting to the world to see if anyone was missing me yet. Afterwards, I had a long, hot shower (with five imaginary friends). Then I turned off the air conditioning and climbed into my wonderful, flat bed. Lights out at 12:20 am. The saying goes, "It's the journey, not the destination." However, it this case, the opposite was definitely true!

[Diary] I woke at 4 am, and after trying to get back to sleep, I decided that wasn't going to happen, so I put on the monogramed bathrobe provided by the hotel and sat at my desk working on this diary. When I pulled back the blinds, the city was still quite alive, although only a few eating-places remained open. Around 5:15, I heard a public-address system sound the first call for prayers, which brought back memories from my first experience in a Moslem area (in Malaysia in 1979). Speaking of prayers, inscribed on the top of one of the bedside tables in my room was a green circle with a green arrow inside that pointed in the direction of Holy Mecca. This allows one to face the proper direction while praying.

At 6:15, dawn was just beginning to break. Having brought this diary up to date, I dressed and went down for breakfast. Hmm, a bowl of cornflakes or a camel steak, medium rare? Decisions, decisions!

The restaurant was understated, but pleasant and with friendly staff. I started with a senior's breakfast of cereal with fresh fruit. I went through some tourist brochures to see how I might spend my free time. I snacked on some nice bread, jam, and cheese while sipping juice. Afterwards, I sat in the lounge area and read a regional newspaper. Interestingly, it contained a full-page ad for a sale of Christmas decorations from a Japanese company. Now I don't seem to recall Japan or the Middle East being particularly Christian, but I guess that when it comes to marketing and selling, anything is fair game. On the way back to my room, I took a detour to the 21st floor to inspect the exercise facilities, steam room, massage rooms, and the open-air rooftop pool.

Back in my room, I closed the heavy curtains and lay on the bed in search of the other half of my night's sleep. It took a while, but the good news was that it did come. More than five hours later, I woke feeling reasonably rested. And after a cup of coffee and a snack, I was almost ready for the world. Back home, it was 5 am, so with the magic of internet radio, I tuned into my home radio station and got a news update.

At 3:15 pm, I stepped outside into a very nice, warm, and bright day. I had a 4-o'clock meeting at a hotel nearby, so I set out to locate that. The hotel was the one in which my conference was to be held and when I went to the meeting room to have a look, the stage area at the front was under construction, literally! There, I met the director of national standards for UAE. He was Irish and, along with British Standards, had hosted us in Belfast some years ago when he headed the Irish national standards organization.

My meeting ran for more than two hours after which I had a private meeting with a colleague. I walked home via a different route. After looking at the menus at a number of restaurants, I settled on a Turkish-style Kebab place where I shared a table with a young Moroccan from Casablanca. He'd been working in the Emirates for a year and managed a Middle-Eastern restaurant. Almost all his employees where Philippinos. We chatted while we ate. I had garlic lamb in local bread with a side salad and drink. It was cheap and filling, and I enjoyed my conversation. Apparently, there are numerous differences in reading, writing, and speaking Arabic from different countries just as there are in dialects in English.

Back in my room, I prepared for the next day.

[Diary] I slept about four hours only and was down at the restaurant when it opened just before 6 am. At 7:45, I stepped out into another nice day. As I had extra time, I walked through a park. At the meeting hotel, I registered, received my badge, and chatted with a number of delegates. We meet once each year, usually in November. (Last year, it was Brittany, France, and next year it's Beijing, China.)

We met from 9 am to 5 pm with morning and afternoon coffee and snack breaks, and lunch for an hour from 1 pm. I renewed my acquaintance with a number of delegates. After lunch, jetlag took hold and I closed my eyes for much of the afternoon. On the way home, I stopped off at a post office to get some postcard stamps.

As I'd eaten more than enough during the day, I decided to skip the evening meal, and as I lay on the bed reading, I fell asleep. At 7:30, I woke and got into bed where I managed to sleep deeply about three hours. I got some more hours later on. In-between times, I read, snacked, and watched an interesting program on the BBC World channel about Western Australia.

[Diary] Once again, it was quite nice outside at daybreak, and I had a leisurely breakfast. Back in my room, I set my alarm for 90 minutes and lay on the bed. Alas, no further sleep came, but I did rest my eyes. At the conference hotel, I kept one ear on the meeting while working on my laptop; however, I faded as the afternoon wore on. As such, at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel and had a 1-hour nap. That certainly recharged my batteries for the evening event, a very nice buffet dinner outdoors at a large resort hotel. I spent a delightful evening with an Irish delegate and his wife.

[Diary] I had my first all-night sleep, but knew from experience that I might relapse the following night. The day had the same format as the previous ones. The highlight came after the meeting ended. Our host provided buses and we drove to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It was an impressive piece of architecture. Our tour guide was a young woman, dressed in a black abaya, but with her face showing. After the women guests were given abayas or donned head coverings, we walked around the outdoor cloisters before entering the main prayer hall.

Back in my room, I had a quiet evening reading.

[Diary] I slept soundly, but came up several hours short; bugger! After a custom omelet for breakfast, I walked out into a pleasant morning. The meeting was pretty much a repeat of the previous days, with lots of unnecessary eating and drinking. When the official proceedings ended for the day, there was a 2-hour meeting of subcommittee chairs, which I attended. I had trouble staying awake. I took supper in my room after which I went up to the rooftop pool to swim and sit in the hot tub.

[Diary] After a decent sleep, I had a leisurely breakfast. No work today! Having studied the list of things to see and do around Abu Dhabi, I decided that I'd already covered the things I really cared about, so I called the airline to see about going home early. It took a while to complete the transaction, but they had room on the next day's flight, three days earlier than my ticketed date.

At 10 o'clock, I walked over to the conference hotel where I met colleagues from Germany and Finland. We took a taxi to see the Heritage Village, a recreation of life in a desert oasis town. It was hot out, so we kept in the shade. We watched a few tradesmen at work and looked around at some stalls where I bought some postcards. Most of the visitors were small children, dressed in western uniforms or traditional clothing. They were all quite disciplined. From there, we went to the Marina Mall, a huge shopping complex nearby that contained mostly expensive fashion and accessory places. We chatted over lunch in air-conditioned comfort, with our efficient and friendly waiter, Ismael, taking good care of us. Mid-afternoon, we rode a taxi back to the hotel; our driver was from Ethiopia. He told us the biggest guest-worker minority was Indian, with Philippinos second.

Back in my room, I packed up my gear and used most of my emergency rations before starting a new novel. Lights out at 7:30 pm.

[Diary] As usual, I slept in stages, finally getting up at 4 am, two hours before my wake-up call was due. Don't you just hate that when that happens! I snacked, watched TV, and went online to check the weather back home. (Apparently, it was well below freezing the previous night!) Once the breakfast room opened, I went down for some cereal and fruit. Back in my room, I packed my gear and went down to the front desk to check out.

It was 7:45 and peak-hour traffic was in effect, and supposedly, taxis were in short supply, so I rode in one of the hotel's cars. The driver was from India, and with his very thick accent, I had trouble deciphering more than a few of his sentences. Anyway, he was quite talkative and informed me about all sorts of local things. The sun was very bright, and it was going to be another hot day. I arrived at my terminal three hours before departure, which was exactly when my flight opened for check-in. A very perky young woman, born in the UK but raised in the Emirates, with a distinct British accent, took good care of me. From there I went through my first lot of security. Then it was on through the long line of duty-free shops where I stopped to be shocked by the ridiculously high prices for my favorite chocolate. Perhaps it was time to cut back! I found a currency exchange place and unloaded my surplus dirhams.

Given the number of flights each day from Abu Dhabi to US airports, the US customs and immigration service does pre-clearing, so flights arrive in the US as if they had a domestic origin. That went smoothly, and I went through another security checkpoint. Near my gate, I fired up my laptop and worked on this diary then read until my flight was called.

Flight EY131 boarded for an on-time departure of 11:30 am. (By that time, my feet were freezing from the air conditioning in the taxi and terminal, and I was starting to sniffle.) I was in the same spacious seat I'd had on the way over. Ordinarily, a return flight follows the same general path as the out-bound one; however, that was not the case this time. From AUH, we flew north across the narrow Strait of Hormuz and into Iranian airspace. From there it was up over the Iranian capital, Tehran, then up the west side of the Caspian Sea over Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and over Russia to a point just southwest of Moscow. From there it was onto Estonia, the Baltic Sea, across Sweden and Norway, just south of Iceland, across the southern tip of Greenland, across the northern tip of Labrador, down across Quebec, down the east coast of Lake Ontario, and on into Dulles Airport.

Most people kept the window shades closed the whole trip, and except for the occasional crying baby, it was a smooth ride. Although it was not very comfortable for sleeping, I drifted in and out for 10+ hours. The multi-national cabin crew (headed by an Aussie) took great care of us and were very friendly.

Not long after takeoff, we were served lunch. The following were on offer: lamb meatballs in spicy tomato sauce with roast courgettes (Zucchini) and mashed potatoes; chicken biryani with aromatic rice, friend onions and cashew nuts; and dal tadka and cauliflower bhaji, red lentils tempered with aromatic sauces, served with spinach rice. All were followed by semolina pudding. I chose the lamb, which was wonderful! I skipped the mid-flight snack offerings. Just like we'd had two dinners on the way over, on the way back, we had two lunches. The second came a couple of hours before landing, and there was only one choice, a vegetarian dish called kadal paneer with haryali mutter and turmeric rice. So, what is that, you may well ask? Well, there was a lot of yellow rice, some mushy peas sprinkled with mint, and some spicy sauce with some non-descript "thingies" in it. Actually, it was pretty darned tasty.

We touched down on time at 5:45 pm, local time. We pulled into Terminal A and soon I was on the train to the main terminal where the luggage came out after a short wait. The plane would be turned around for a 10-pm departure back to Abu Dhabi. It occurred to me that such a schedule, 15+ hours over and then 13+ hours back after a few hours on the ground required some very reliable equipment. Even with four engines, there isn't a whole lot of room for error when you are out over the wide Atlantic, or anywhere, for that matter, when you are at 35,000 feet!

Although the cold weather was a shock, it was still above freezing. I jumped in a taxi, picked up my car, and started the drive back home on the expressway. I cranked up the car's heater and was wondering why I hadn't stayed in some warmer place a bit longer, say, for the whole darn winter! My house was just where I'd left it, and soon I was inside raising the temperature. As I was home three days early, I called my neighbors to let them know I wasn't a burglar. I unpacked my gear and then watched some recorded episodes of a news program while sipping a mug of hot chocolate. Lights out by 8:30 pm, 25½ hours after I'd gotten up in Abu Dhabi.

This was an unusual trip in that it was a new country, but with minimal free time added. In fact, I went home three days early! I had toyed with the idea of making a day trip to Dubai, but not being interested in shopping or visiting the world's largest indoor downhill skiing facility, it didn't seem worth the 6-hour round-trip by bus. Of more interest to me was the idea of an overnight trip out into the desert, sleeping in traditional tents. Well that didn't seem at all easy to organize either.

By far the biggest—and very pleasant—surprise was that with all the guest workers, the common language of the masses is English! Yes, even the chamber maids at my hotel, the servers at KFC, and the checkout operator in the supermarket spoke my language. This in contrast to my having to deal with mostly Arabic speakers during my previous foray to the region, to Jordan.